Carrier Strike Group 21 – Shaping the future?

The United Kingdom’s (UK) Carrier Strike Group (CSG21) deployment in 2021 was scoped and planned in 2015.  Its original purposes were to validate and reinforce the carrier group concept, to integrate the F35B Lightning II combat jet within the maritime environment and to demonstrate the UK’s global reach both in support of its allies and partners and its national interests, investments, and overseas territories. At the time, it was recognised that the Indo-Pacific region had become the geostrategic and economic focus of attention for the international community, not least because of the impact of a progressively more nationalistic, prosperous, and insistent People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The passage of time has meant that the deployment has now become closely aligned with the need of free and open countries to protect the open international order and balance attempts by a loose authoritarian bloc, comprising the PRC, Russia and Iran, to contest freedom of navigation around the continental landmass of Eurasia. The PRC can be seen to be attempting to dictate the terms of navigation and access in the South and East China seas, and beyond into the Indian Ocean; Russia the Baltic and Black seas and the Arctic; and Iran the region centred on the Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman.    

In response, a combination of maritime, predominantly democratic states, which all have an interest in the continued free use of the sea as the primary medium of access and exchange, is coalescing around the leadership of the United States (US). Other than the US, this nascent maritime bloc comprises the UK, Canada, various European powers (with commitment determined by their geographical or economic situation), South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. These states have been joined by other countries that, either individually or collectively, have good reason to be wary of the trajectory of the authoritarian Eurasian bloc, in the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Pacific. India is likely to align predominantly with the maritime-democratic bloc, reflecting its democratic credentials, its geostrategic concerns and its ongoing disputes and rivalry with the PRC, along their shared border, in the Indian Ocean and in Southeast Asia.

This broad-based community has been exemplified by CSG21, which comprises not just British units, but also a Dutch frigate and a US destroyer, as well as a US Marine Corps F35B squadron on HMS Queen Elizabeth. It has exercised with allies and maritime partners in the Mediterranean (with Italy, Greece and others) and Indian Ocean (with India) and has asserted the right of innocent passage in the territorial seas of Crimea. At the time of writing, the group, having exercised with South Korea, will have transited the international waters of the South China Sea ‘confidently, but not confrontationally’ in defiance of strident Chinese objections. The deployment has also encouraged other free and open countries to initiate or maintain deployments in the South China Sea (France, Germany and Australia), while future exercises, notably with Japan and within the framework of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), will further reinforce maritime democratic solidarity and resolve.

It seems clear that if free and open countries wish to thrive in the exacting conditions of the 21st century, they will need to develop and further reinforce this collaboration at sea. The US does not have the resources to sustain the free world’s interests at sea or to challenge and confront the authoritarian powers on its own.  Owing to the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons and the prohibitive cost of massive military incursions by major geostrategic rivals, it is likely that most geostrategic challenges will arise from localised conflicts, proxy activities and frequent ‘encounter’ events, mostly at sea, in the contested space on the edges of these two blocs. To that end, maritime-democratic countries will need to focus on deterring aggression, containing, and constraining the Eurasian-authoritarian bloc and determining the ways in which constant geopolitical and geoeconomic friction can be alternately mitigated and exploited.

As a country that wishes to be the preeminent maritime power in Europe and aspires to global reach, the UK will commit to a leading role in the maritime-democratic coalition, a position reinforced by membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the ‘Five Eyes’ community, the Commonwealth, and a range of free world organisations, which together contribute a strong structural and institutional basis to the bloc. In any case, the US is likely to expect the UK to play a leading role in the maritime-democratic bloc. As such, the Royal Navy will most likely be congruent with the US Navy in terms of shape, if not size; able to lead a substantial maritime coalition force and have sufficient capacity for stand-alone national missions.

However, if the Royal Navy is to continue to operate with confidence in the fault-line between the maritime-democratic bloc and the Eurasian authoritarian bloc, it will need to increase its firepower and general capability significantly if it is to deter aggression, resist coercion and go toe-to-toe with likely opponents. It has cutting-edge nuclear submarines, naval aviation, and marines, and is building eight different types of naval ships and submarines over the next decade. Nevertheless, more broadly, its modern air defence capabilities combine with anti-ship, anti-missile and anti-submarine capabilities that will (in relation to major opponents) become rapidly uncompetitive if investment in innovation and new technologies does not continue. British maritime forces will especially need to recognise, mitigate, and absorb the impact of novel technologies, notably unmanned and loitering munitions, hypersonic and ballistic missiles, directed energy and a range of artificially intelligent systems and applications.    

Finally, in the wake of the British departure from the European Union (EU), the Royal Navy and the UK’s wider maritime sector have come to personify the country’s political mantra of ‘Global Britain’. The message of CSG21 is that the UK is back on the global stage and intends, once again, to use the sea to influence decisions and events at times and places of political choice in support of its allies and its interests. With its distinctive maritime and trading history, human capital and cultural power, not least the use of English as a universal data language, Global Britain has the capacity and capability to shape, in its own and the common interest, the growing international consensus that the threat from the Eurasian-authoritarian bloc at sea needs to, and can be, contained and constrained.

R. Adm. (rtd.) Dr Chris Parry is Director of Merl House, a strategic forecasting company. Previously, he served as an officer in the Royal Navy, where he held a number of senior positions. From 2005 to 2008, he was Director General of the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, the Ministry of Defence’s internal think tank.

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